From New World Encyclopedia

In music, counterpoint is the relationship between two or more voices that are independent in countour and rhythm, and interdependent in harmony. It has most commonly been identified in Western music, developing strongly in the Renaissance era, and also dominant in much of the common practice period, especially in Baroque music. The term comes from the Latin punctus contra punctum ("note against note"). The adjectival form contrapuntal shows this Latin source more transparently.

As composers in Europe during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance began to write music with greater linear complexity, the natural by-product of this process was a vertical alignment of tones that possessed very definite harmonic implications. The evolution of harmonic syntax though the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, along with the experiments in tuning and interval modification (temperament) led to the development of very specific harmonic theories which in turn gave rise to a codified system of major/minor and sharp/flat key centers. The diatonic major and minor scales, based on a specific sequence of major and minor intervals, along with the use of triads (three pitches sounding simultaneously) became the fundamental properties of tonality, which in turn provided an aural base or "home" key, and was to become known as the tonic.

The evolution of contrapuntal writing eventually led to the establishment of tonality, the prevalent syntax of composition for more than three centuries.

General principles

In all eras, the organized contrapuntal composition of music has been subject to rules, sometimes with very strict guidelines. By definition, chords occur when multiple notes sound simultaneously; however, chordal harmonies with vertical features are considered secondary and almost incidental when counterpoint is the predominant textural element. Counterpoint focuses on melodic interaction rather than harmonic effects generated when melodic strands occur together. In the words of John Rahn: "It is hard to write a beautiful song. It is harder to write several individually beautiful songs that, when sung simultaneously, sound as a more beautiful polyphonic whole. The internal stuctures that create each of the voices, separately must contribute to the emergent structure of the polyphony, which in turn must reinforce and comment on the structures of the individual voices. The way that is accomplished in detail is...'counterpoint'."[1]

The separation of harmony and counterpoint is not absolute. It is difficult to write simultaneous lines without producing harmony, and difficult to write harmony without linear activity. The composer who chooses to ignore one aspect in favor of the other still must face the fact that listeners cannot simply turn off harmonic or linear hearing at will. Thus the composer risks creating annoying distractions unintendedly. The late Baroque composer Bach's counterpoint, often considered the most profound synthesis of the two dimensions ever achieved, is extremely rich harmonically, and always clearly directed tonally, while his lines remain fascinating.


Counterpoint was elaborated on extensively in the Renaissance period, but composers of the Baroque period brought counterpoint to a virtual culmination, and it may be said that, broadly speaking, harmony then took over as the predominant organizing principle in musical composition. Johann Sebastian Bach wrote most of his music incorporating counterpoint, and explicitly and systematically explored the full range of contrapuntal possibilities in such works as 'The Art of Fugue'.

Given the way terminology in music history has evolved, such music created from the Baroque period onward is described as contrapuntal, while music prior to the Baroque times is called 'polyphonic'. Hence, the earlier composer, Josquin des Prez is said to have written polyphonic music.

'Homophony', by contrast with polyphony, features music in which chords or vertical intervals work with a single melody without much consideration of the melodic character of the added accompanying elements, or of their melodic interactions with the melody they accompany. As suggested above, most popular music written today is predominantly homophonic, its composition governed mainly by considerations of chord and harmony. While general tendencies can often be fairly strong one way or another, rather than describing a musical work in absolute terms as either polyphonic or homophonic, it is a question of degree.

The form or compositional genre known as the fugue, is perhaps the most complex contrapuntal convention. Other examples include the 'round' (familiar in folk traditions) and the 'canon'.

In musical composition, contrapuntal techniques are important for enabling composers to generate musical ironies that serve not only to intrigue listeners into listening more intently to the spinning out of complexities found within the texture of a polyphonic composition, but also to draw them all the more into hearing the working out of these figures and interactions of a musical dialogue. A melodic fragment, heard alone, makes a particular impression; but when the fragment is heard simultaneously with other melodic ideas, or combined in unexpected ways with itself (as in a canon or fugue), greater depths of affective meaning are revealed. Through the musical development of a theme or idea, the fragments undergo a working out into something musically greater than the sum of the parts, something conceptually more profound than a single pleasing melody.

Excellent examples of counterpoint in jazz include Gerry Mulligan's Young Blood, Bill Holman's Invention for Guitar and Trumpet and his Theme and Variations, as well as recordings by Stan Getz, Bob Brookmeyer, Johnny Richards, and Jimmy Giuffre.[2]

Species counterpoint

Species counterpoint is a type of so-called strict counterpoint, developed as a pedagogical tool, in which a student progresses through several "species" of increasing complexity, always working a very plain given part in the 'cantus firmus' (Latin for "fixed melody"). The student gradually attains the ability to write free counterpoint (that is, less rigorously constrained counterpoint, usually without a cantus firmus) according to the rules at the given time.[3] The idea is at least as old as 1532, when Giovanni Maria Lanfraco described a similar concept in his Scintille di musica. The late sixteenth century Venetian school theorist Zarlino elaborated on the idea in his influential Le institutioni harmoniche, and it was first presented in a codified form in 1619 by Lodovico Zacconi in his Prattica di musica. Zacconi, unlike later theorists, included a few extra contrapuntal techniques as species, for example, 'invertible counterpoint'.

By far the most famous pedagogue to use the term, and the one who made it famous, was Johann Fux. In 1725 he published Gradus ad Parnassum (Step by Step Up Mount Parnassus), a work intended to help teach students how to compose, using counterpoint—specifically, the contrapuntal style as practised by Palestrina in the late sixteenth century—as the principal technique. As the basis for his simplified and often over-restrictive codification of Palestrina's practice (see General notes, below), Fux described five species:

  1. Note against note;
  2. Two notes against one;
  3. Four (extended by others to include three, or six, etc.) notes against one;
  4. Notes offset against each other (as suspensions);
  5. All the first four species together, as "florid" counterpoint.

A succession of later theorists imitated Fux's seminal work quite closely, but often with some small and idiosyncratic modifications in the rules. A good example is Luigi Cherubini.[4]

Considerations for all species

Students of species counterpoint usually practice writing counterpoint in all the modes (Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian and Aeolian) except the Locrian mode. The following rules apply to melodic writing in each species, for each part:

  1. The final must be approached by steps and skips. If the final is approached from below, the leading tone must be raised, except in the case of the Phrygian mode. Thus, in the Dorian mode on D, a C# is necessary at the cadence.
  2. Permitted melodic intervals are the perfect fourth, fifth, and octave, as well as the major and minor second, major and minor third, and ascending minor sixth. When the ascending minor sixth is used it must be immediately followed by a downward motion.
  3. If writing two steps and skips in the same direction, something which must be done only rarely, the second must be smaller than the first, and the interval between the first and the third note may not be dissonant.
  4. If writing a skip in one direction, it is best to proceed after the skip with motion in the other direction.
  5. The interval of a 'tritone' in three notes is to be avoided (for example, an ascending melodic motion F - A - B natural), as is the interval of a seventh in three notes.

And, in all species, the following rules apply concerning the combination of the parts:

  1. The counterpoint must begin and end on a perfect consonance and dissonance.
  2. Contrary motion should predominate.
  3. The interval of a tenth should not be exceeded between two adjacent parts, unless by necessity.

First species

In first species counterpoint, each note in every added part (parts being also referred to as lines or voices) sounds against one note in the cantus firmus. Notes in all parts are sounded simultaneously, and move against each other simultaneously. The species is said to be expanded if any of the added notes are broken up (simply repeated).

In the present context, a "step" is a melodic interval of a half or whole step. A "skip" is an interval of a third or fourth. An interval of a fifth or larger is referred to as a "leap."

There are a few further rules given by Fux, by study of the Palestrina style, and usually given in the works of later counterpoint pedagogues. Some are vague, and since good judgment and taste have been regarded by contrapuntists as more important than strict observance of mechanical rules, there are many more cautions than prohibitions. Some like the following examples are closer to being mandatory, and are accepted by most authorities:

  1. Begin and end on either the unison, octave, or fifth, unless the added part is underneath, in which case begin and end only on unison or octave.
  2. Use no unisons except at the beginning or end.
  3. Avoid parallel fifths or octaves between any two parts. Avoid consecutive fifths or "hidden" parallel fifths and octaves: that is, movement by contrary motion or similar motion to a perfect fifth or octave, unless one part (sometimes restricted to the higher of the parts) moves by step.
  4. Avoid moving in parallel fourths. (In practice Palestrina and others frequently allowed themselves such progressions, especially if they do not involve the lowest of the parts.)
  5. Avoid moving in parallel thirds or sixths for very long.
  6. Attempt to keep two adjacent parts within a tenth of each other, unless an exceptionally pleasing line can be written by moving outside of that range.
  7. Avoid having both parts move in the same direction by skip.
  8. Attempt to have as much contrary motion as possible.

In the following example in two parts, the cantus firmus is the lower part. (The same cantus firmus is used for later examples also. Each is in the Dorian mode.)

Short example of "First Species" counterpoint

Second species

In second species counterpoint, two notes in each of the added parts work against each longer note in the given part. The species is said to be expanded if one of these two shorter notes differs in length from the other.

Additional considerations in second species counterpoint are as follows, and are in addition to the considerations for first species:

  1. It is permissible to begin on an upbeat, leaving a half-rest in the added voice.
  2. The accented beat must have only consonance (perfect or imperfect). The unaccented beat may have a dissonance, but only as a passing tone, i.e. it must be approached and left by step in the same direction.
  3. Avoid the interval of the unison except at the beginning or end of the example, although it may occur on the unaccented portion of the bar.
  4. Use caution with successive accented perfect fifths or octaves. They must not be used as part of a sequential pattern.
Short example of "Second Species" counterpoint

Third species

In third species counterpoint, four (or three, etc.) notes move against each longer note in the given part. As with second species, it is called expanded if the shorter notes vary in length among themselves.

Short example of "Third Species" counterpoint

Fourth species

In fourth species counterpoint, some notes are sustained or suspended in an added part while notes move against them in the given part. This often creates a consonance and dissonance on the beat, followed by the suspended note then changing (and "catching up") to create a subsequent consonance and dissonance with the note in the given part as it continues to sound. As before, fourth species counterpoint is said to be expanded when the added-part notes vary in length among themselves. The technique requires chains of notes sustained across the boundaries determined by beat, and so creates a rhythmic 'syncopation'.

Short example of "Fourth Species" counterpoint

Florid counterpoint

In fifth species counterpoint, sometimes called florid counterpoint, the other four species of counterpoint are combined within the added parts. In the example, the first and second bars are second species, the third bar is third species, and the fourth and fifth bars are third and embellished fourth species.

Short example of "Florid" counterpoint

General notes

It is a common and pedantic misconception that counterpoint is defined by these five species, and therefore anything that does not follow the strict rules of the five species is not "proper" counterpoint. This is not true. Although much contrapuntal music of the common practice period adheres to the spirit of the rules, the exceptions are many. Fux's book and its concept of "species" was purely a method of teaching counterpoint, not a definitive or rigidly prescriptive set of rules for it. He arrived at his method of teaching (or so he believed, at least) by examining the works of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, an important late sixteenth-century composer who in Fux's time was held in the highest esteem as a contrapuntist. Works in the contrapuntal style of the sixteenth century—the "prima pratica" or "stile antico," as it was called by later composers—were often said by Fux's contemporaries to be in "Palestrina style." Indeed, Fux's treatise is a compendium of Palestrina's actual techniques, simplified and regularized for pedagogical use (and so permitting fewer liberties than occurred in actual practice).

Contrapuntal derivations

Since the Renaissance period in European music, much music which is considered contrapuntal has been written in 'imitative counterpoint'. In imitative counterpoint, two or more voices enter at different times, and (especially when entering) each voice repeats some version of the same melodic element. The fantasia, the ricercar, and later, the canon and fugue (the contrapuntal form par excellence) all feature imitative counterpoint, which also frequently appear in choral works such as motets and madrigals. Imitative counterpoint has spawned a number of devices that composers have turned to in order to give their works both mathematical rigor and expressive range. Some of these devices include:

  • Melodic inversion: The inverse of a given fragment of melody is the fragment turned upside down—so if the original fragment has a rising major third, the inverted fragment has a falling major (or perhaps minor) third, etc. (Compare, in twelve tone technique, the inversion of the tone row, which is the so-called prime series turned upside down.) (Note: in invertible counterpoint, including double and triple counterpoint, the term inversion is used in a different sense altogether. At least one pair of parts is switched, so that the one that was higher becomes lower. It is not a kind of imitation, but a rearrangement of the parts.)
  • Permutation or Retrograde refers to the contrapuntal device whereby notes in an imitative voice sound backwards in relation to their order in the original.
  • Retrograde inversion is where the imitative voice sounds notes both backwards and upside down.
  • Augmentation is when in one of the parts in imitative counterpoint the notes are extended in duration compared to the rate at which they were sounded when introduced.
  • Diminution is when in one of the parts in imitative counterpoint the notes are reduced in duration compared to the rate at which they were sounded when introduced.

Dissonant counterpoint

Dissonant counterpoint was first theorized by Charles Seeger as "at first purely a school-room discipline," consisting of species counterpoint but with all the traditional rules reversed. First species counterpoint is required to be all dissonances, establishing "dissonance, rather than consonance, as the rule," and consonances are "resolved" through a skip, not step. He wrote that "the effect of this discipline" was "one of purification." Other aspects of composition, such as rhythm, could be "dissonated" by applying the same principle (Charles Seeger, "On Dissonant Counterpoint," Modern Music 7, no. 4 (June-July 1930): 25-26).

Seeger was not the first to employ dissonant counterpoint, but was the first to theorize and promote it. Other composers who have used dissonant counterpoint, if not in the exact manner prescribed by Charles Seeger, include Ruth Crawford-Seeger, Carl Ruggles, Henry Cowell, Henry Brant, Dane Rudhyar, Lou Harrison, Fartein Valen, and Arnold Schoenberg.

Counterpoint in Popular Music

Irving Berlin wrote three well-known songs that were true examples of counterpoint in American popular music. They are "You're Just in Love," “Play a Simple Melody," and "An Old-Fashioned Wedding" (see the 1966 revival of the musical, "Annie Get Your Gun.").

Counterpoint is common in musical theatre songs, especially those that try to compare or contrast two or more characters' views.

The Punk bassist Paul Simonon, best known as the bassist for The Clash, incorporated Reggae inspired counterpoint basslines into his playing.

American heavy metal band 'Savatage' uses counterpoint vocals on several of their songs including "Chance" off the album 'Handful of Rain' and "The Wake of Magellan" off the album 'The Wake of Magellan'.

Another metal band, 'Theocracy' used this vocal style near the end of the song "Twist of Fate" from their self titled debut album "Theocracy."

In literature

Palestinian-American post-colonial critical theorist Edward Said, himself a pianist and music critic, wrote extensively about how literature could be contrapuntal.


  1. John Rahn, Music Inside Out: Going Too Far in Musical Essays (2000, ISBN 90-5701-332-0), 177.
  2. Vince Corozine, Arranging Music for the Real World: Classical and Commercial Aspects (2002, ISBN 0-7866-4961-5), 34.
  3. Knud Jeppeson, Counterpoint: the polyphonic vocal style of the sixteenth century, English translation 1939 (reprint by Dover, NY, 1992, ISBN 0-486-27036-X).
  4. Luigi Cherubini, Cours de contrepoint et de fugue (Paris, 1835).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • deBeldemandis, Prosdocimus, and Jan W. Herlinger. "Contrapunctus=Counterpoint." Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984. ISBN 0803236697
  • Piston, Walter. "Counterpoint." NY: W.W. Norton & Co. Inc., 1947. OCLC 399711
  • Schubert, Peter, and Christoph Neidhofer. "Baroque Counterpoint." Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Presntice Hall, 2006. ISBN 0131834428

External links

All links retrieved January 10, 2024.


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